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Google Reader & The Coming FeedBurner Subscriber Count Apocalypse

FeedBurner is a service that allows publishers to manage their RSS feeds. Google purchased FeedBurner in 2007. Since then, it has increasingly felt abandoned by Google. However, FeedBurner still provides some core features, among them, an estimate of how many people subscribe to particular feeds managed through the service.
How does FeedBurner know how many people subscribe to a feed? It depends on the various feed reading services self-reporting how many of their users take a particular feed. To understand more, consider this pretty chart FeedBurner has for the main feed of our sister-site, Search Engine Land:
Feed Count
This snapshot from last Sunday reports that the feed has 99,881 subscribers. It then itemizes which feed readers in particular have the most subscribers, in descending order. Google Feedfetcher is first, with 88,767. Next is Netvibes, way down at 7,031. No other feed reader breaks the 1,000 mark.

There’s Google Reader & Then There’s Everyone Else

What’s Google Feedfetcher? It’s the system that pulls feeds into both Google Reader and iGoogle (which itself closes on November 1). The vast majority of our 88,767 subscribers served by Google Feedfetcher come from Google Reader. I know this, because when you look up a particular feed in Google Reader, you can get the precise count of subscribers to it, within just that service:
sel reader
As you can see, on Google Reader, Search Engine Land has 87,358 readers, leaving 1,409 for iGoogle (pretty close to the 1,234 that iGoogle itself reports).

The Coming Subscriber Collapse

On Monday, those 87,000 subscribers on Google Reader go away, because Google Reader will close. In turn, our FeedBurner subscriber count will plunge.
There’s an excellent chance this will happen for many sites, not just for us. Google Reader long ago eclipsed other readers out there. When it goes, anyone using FeedBurner should see a plunge. Those using other feed management tools that provide counts will also likely see similar drops.

How Counts May Return, But Not As High

Of course, there are many new feed reading services waiting to take over for Google Reader, if those being forced to migrate select them. The Big Comparison Of Google Reader RSS Feed Alternatives is our article from earlier this week that lists many of them.
The two services many expect to gain the most from Google Reader closing are Feedly and Digg Reader. Potentially, they could begin reporting subscriber counts to FeedBurner. And potentially, if everyone who used Google Reader went to these or other services, and if all those services reported counts, then the subscriber drop wouldn’t be so dramatic.
That won’t be the case, however. For one, all of the services probably won’t report counts to FeedBurner. Digg told me it plans to; Feedly didn’t response, when I asked.
For another, even if all the services did report counts, the “subscribers” currently being shown on Google Reader almost certainly don’t reflect active readers who will migrate.

Subscribers Versus Reach

The chart above illustrates that. Remember, 99,881 subscribers? There was another number below it, a reach of 4,184.
Reach is the number of people who actively viewed the feed, as opposed to have a subscription to it but never actually look. Think of it like getting a newspaper delivered each day, but one that you seldom open. While you’re a subscriber, you’re not actually reading it. Only those reading it are considered as part of the reach figure.
Chances are, many people have abandoned use of Google Reader over time. This means not all those subscribed are likely to migrate. If they don’t migrate, then the counts are unlikely to recover.
On the upside, the new counts that appear are likely to be a far more accurate reflection of true feed readership.

How Counts May Return, But Not To FeedBurner

I think it’s also likely we’ll see these counts return but only within the services themselves. Similar to how Twitter or Facebook or Google+ all provide buttons that show the number of followers a person or site has, I think we’ll see the new and reenergized feed readers out there do the same.
Consider Feedly, and what it shows now as a count for the Search Engine Land feed (you can get the count for any feed when you search for it):
SEL on Feedly
That 84K figure, standing for 84,000 subscribers, is pretty close to the 87,000 subscribers reported by Google Reader. That’s not a coincidence. That’s because currently, Feedly is reporting Google Reader’s count (and the slight difference of 84,000 vs. 87,000 might be because the counts aren’t constantly refreshed).
That’s going to change. Feedly told me it hopes to change in the near future to showing the number of Feedly users who are subscribed to a particular feed, plus it plans reports for publishers to better understand who is reading and engaging with their content.
Others might do the same. And others might think it makes more sense to report figures directly to publishers, perhaps with buttons, for the same reason that Twitter, Facebook and Google+ do. It’s a way for a publisher to effectively brag about their counts, and it exposes a service to more potential users.

Return Of The Chicklet?

As a reminder, consider this:
John Battelle_s Search Blog | Thoughts on the intersection of search, media, technology, and more.John Battelle_s Search Blog
That’s the FeedBurner “FeedCount chicklet” that a few years ago. It’s a button that FeedBurner still provides that can show off your count.
That button above is from John Battelle’s blog. I’ve got a similar one at the bottom of my personal blog. At one time, these types of buttons had pride-of-place on many sites. Over time, they’ve slowly disappeared. The FeedBurner count drop that’s about to happen may cause more publishers to abandon these.
In their place, perhaps we’ll see new buttons from the services that may emerge and seem strong. For example, Feedly told me, after checking its internal figures, that our Search Engine Land feed has 16,000 Feedly readers.
That’s pretty impressive. That means of our 87,000 Google Reader subscribers, about 20% have moved over to Feedly. That’s a healthy start for the service, and the percentage is likely higher when you consider that many of those 87,000 subscribers probably have abandoned their accounts.
How counts will play out remains to be seen, so stay tuned. In the meantime, if you’re a publisher, make a visit over to Google Reader. Click on the “Subscribe” button, search for your blog or feed, then make a note of your Google Reader subscriber count. That will be a good benchmark figure to have, to compare to some of the new numbers that will come.
Goodbye Google Reader. So long, FeedBurner FeedCount chicklets. Adios, FeedBurner subscriber counts. Hello to the counts to come.

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